1. Archive

Writing for a future that has no differences

Often, I write about black people, their successes, their failures, their collisions with unsympathetic institutions.

Sometimes, people write me or call me to say I write about such things too often. It upsets some people, makes others uncomfortable.

Slavery ended long ago, they say. Why do you keep bringing it up? You're a racist, they say. I never owned slaves; why should I keep having this guilt trip foisted upon me? We'd get along pretty good if you and others would stop harping on this racial stuff, they say.

Those are easy words, I suppose, from someone who is not daily the target of some negative action based entirely on the color of his or her skin. Easier still when you, or people who share your ethnicity, are vilified by implication.

But they are empty, rather futile words: Denial is not the way to eliminate decisionmaking that heavily weighs race as a factor; it is the sure way of perpetuating it.

Black people know that.

My response, when the criticism is civil enough to merit one, is sometimes defensive. I tell them quite matter-of-factly that I don't write inordinately about black people. Then I prove it with some evidence such as my last 50 columns, of which half were about black people or their concerns and half were about white people and theirs.

I point out to them that it is not helpful to one's career to write too often about black people and the things that are important to them because you run the risk of being labeled "black writer" and assigning a parking space to your career.

Then I note for them that some of my white colleagues have spent entire careers writing exclusively about white people and their concerns _ perhaps with an occasional black face falling into their prose _ and they haven't been labeled "white reporters" nor have their careers stalled.

But that is snippy and has no meaning to the critics who see writing about white people and things that matter primarily to them not as specialized reporting but as general interest writing.

The best and most accurate answer for my critics is: I write for them. The people who are tired of hearing that prosperity is not fairly apportioned to equal effort and ability, people who say that a man whose property was taken 40 years ago should quietly accept his poverty today, people who say racism is dead need to hear the truth.

They need to hear it, and they need to see it. And I don't think the person who follows me should have the burden of showing it to them. That person should be free to write about other things.

My critics, ironically, are my target. I don't write for black people; they know these things already. All that I can hope to achieve with black people is an acknowledgement that their experience is shared and understood, and has been illuminated.

White readers, though, have the potential to gain a new level of understanding. When you haven't been a victim _ and the child and grandchild of victims _ it's hard to understand the depth of the hurt.

And an altruistic good feeling should not be the reward of gaining such knowledge. Survival is.

We are entering an era when "general interest" is being redefined. We are emerging from an era when resistance to that inevitable redefinition was encouraged _ by two presidents and their empowered followers.

America's diversity, which was evolving before Europeans landed, is continuing. A few but apparently growing number of people are worried about that fact enough to turn to groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads, hoping they will serve as stopgaps. But people rational enough to know such groups are not the answer also should know the more familiar we become with each other, the more smoothly we'll go into a new century of multiculturalism.

I will continue to write about black people and white people and the things that matter to them.

Then, maybe one day, we won't even see a difference.